sexual sobriety

What is Sexual Sobriety?

Having spent two decades working with relationship and sexual addicts—male and female, straight and gay, younger and older—I have come to accept that people entering sex addiction recovery typically have little to no idea of what achieving “sexual sobriety” really means or entails. This confusion is in sharp contrast to nearly any alcoholic or drug addict entering treatment, who more or less already knows that he or she will have to abstain completely from alcohol and/or illicit drugs to be sober.

Unsurprisingly, the most frequently asked question by newcomers to sexual addiction treatment is: “Am I ever going to be able to have a healthy, regular sex life, or will I have to give up sex forever?” And this question is usually followed by a statement along the lines of, “If I have to give up sex permanently, then you can forget my staying in treatment.”

Fortunately, unlike sobriety for alcoholism and drug addiction, sexual sobriety is not defined by ongoing abstinence—though a short period away from sex is often recommended as a brief, early part of the healing process. Ultimately, sexual addiction treatment addresses sobriety in much the same way it is handled in the treatment of eating disorders, another area where sobriety does not mean permanently abstaining. (You can’t very well abstain from eating!)

Time Out!

As mentioned above, a short period of sexual abstinence—a “time out” from all sexual behaviors, including masturbation—is often both helpful and recommended in early recovery. This period of complete sexual abstinence is suggested because most new clients experience difficulty when trying to distinguish (in the moment) between healthy and unhealthy sexual and romantic behaviors.

This time out, usually lasting anywhere from 30 to 90 days, can be used to help the individual more readily recognize addictive sexual activity as compared to healthier behavior choices. This brief period of being nonsexual can also help the addict develop some basic coping skills that can be used to both recognize and combat the emotional triggers and external circumstances that cue the individual’s problematic sexual behaviors. And as the sex addict struggles to avoid his or her typical, “automatic” sexual choices, he or she also gains much needed insight into the full extent of his or her past dependency on sex and romance for emotional distraction and self-stabilization.

In the same way that drug detox is the first step in recovery from substance abuse, a period of complete sexual abstinence—a detox from abusing sex—can be a first step on the road to long-term sexual sobriety. Again, sexual abstinence is NOT a long-term intervention. Rather, it helps to interrupt long-established compulsive behavior patterns while ego-strength, social skills, and new coping mechanisms are developed.

Sex addiction clinicians encourage this short period of complete sexual abstinence not to deny our clients’ dependency and intimacy needs, but to make them aware that there are other and better ways they can get those needs met. In fact, the heavy lifting of sex addiction recovery is not this short time out from romantic and sexual behavior, rather it is the slow (re)introduction of healthy sexuality. In other words, the true work of sexual recovery is learning how to meet emotional and physical needs without “acting out” sexually.

What About Masturbation?

One potentially problematic gray area (after the initial period of total sexual abstinence) for many recovering sex addicts is masturbation. For porn addicts and compulsive masturbators, the decision is clear—masturbation with or without pornography is not acceptable. For other sex addicts the situation may be less clear. For some, masturbation can be an integral part of the addictive cycle—directly feeding the fantasies that produce the “high” of sexual addiction, thereby serving as a gateway to bottom line acting out behaviors. For these individuals masturbation could be either a slippery but still-sober behavior or a bottom line non-sober behavior.

For still other sex addicts, non-compulsive masturbation can actually aid recovery, encouraging appropriate intimacy and contributing to an overall sense of sexual health and well-being. Each sex and love addict is different, as are their treatment plans and goals. Thus, it is important that all sex and love addicts discuss masturbation with their therapist, 12-step sexual recovery sponsor, or accountability partner—erring on the side of caution when the situation is less than clear.

The Sexual Sobriety Plan

In sexual addiction treatment, we work to help clients carefully self-define those sexual behaviors that will not continue to compromise or destroy their meaningful personal values (fidelity, not hurting others, etc.), life circumstances (keeping their job, not getting arrested, etc.), and relationships. Clients then commit in a written “sexual sobriety contract” to only engage in sexual behavior that is permitted within the bounds of that predetermined pact.

These boundaries are set in tandem with the concerns and goals of the client regarding how his or her life has been affected by past patterns of addictive sexual behavior. As long as a client’s sexual behavior remains within his or her concretely and mutually defined boundaries, that individual is sexually sober. Next week’s blog will go into greater detail regarding how to create a sexual sobriety plan, how to be accountable to such a plan, when and how such a plan can change, etc.

Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is the author of three books on sexual addiction and an expert on the juxtaposition of human sexuality, intimacy, and technology. He is Founding Director of The Sexual Recovery Institute and Director of Intimacy and Sexual Disorders Services at The Ranch in Tennessee and Promises Treatment Centers in California. Mr. Weiss is a clinical psychotherapist and educator. He has provided sexual addiction treatment training internationally for psychology professionals, addiction treatment centers, and the US military. A media expert for Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times, Mr. Weiss has been featured on CNN, The Today Show, Oprah, and ESPN among many others. Rob  can also be found on Twitter at @RobWeissMSW.

Man with clock photo available from Shutterstock

 


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From Psych Central's website:
PsychCentral (August 17, 2012)

Feel Healthy Now (August 17, 2012)

From Psych Central's website:
PsychCentral (August 17, 2012)

Ivar Jerstad (August 23, 2012)

From Psych Central's website:
Basic Sobriety Tools for Sex Addicts | Sex and Intimacy (February 22, 2013)






    Last reviewed: 17 Aug 2012

APA Reference
Weiss LCSW, R. (2012). Sex Addicts and “Sexual Sobriety”. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 28, 2014, from http://blogs.psychcentral.com/sex/2012/08/sexual-sobriety/

 

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